Our Albums of the Year 2020

It’s that time again. The stinking trashpile that will forever be known as 2020 is coming to an end (we’re looking at you, 2021) and we will soon be able to put all the craziness behind us and pretend it never happened. Right? Well, we’ll see I suppose.

All that said, if there is one thing from 2020 that we will all want to remember then it has to be the music. What a 12 months. Today, our writers pick their own personal albums of the year.

And because it’s what we do these days, we’ll be launching a Best Album of 2020 tournament on Twitter at the start of December. The albums you see below will be pitted against those picked by our followers on Twitter (you, if you’re following us @PickyBastards) to crown an ultimate winner. But what will it be? Will it be one of those listed below?

Fran Slater: Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher – I have a lot to be grateful to Phoebe Bridgers for in 2020. Not only did her latest album soundtrack the majority of my lockdown, but she has also been the most prolific live streamer in the game this year. Thanks for all the shows. More than anything, though, I owe her a big thank you for making light of my yearly struggle to decide on an album of the year. In 2020, nothing came close.

Punisher saw Phoebe evolve, creating a sound that was totally and utterly hers, while also building on her debut album and all the collaborations she has released so far. It showed an artist go from hugely promising, to the absolute real deal. With a lyrical prowess that is unmatched in music today, Phoebe will make you cry, smile, laugh, and sit back in awe in the space of a single song. She does all of these things again and again on Punisher. Every other 2020 album is left in its dust.

Nick Parker: Quelle Chris and Chris Keys – Innocent Country 2 I’ve heard reviews of Quelle Chris’s music that focus (for better or worse) on the humour in his lyrics, but seem to see little else in it. This kind of commentary is missing so much. As I’ve got more and more into his work over the last few years, I’ve found the jokes can make me smile, but it’s the relentlessly clever and thoughtful flow that really carries his work to such a high level. Add to this increasing vocal skill across his work someone creating the lush musicality of Chris Keys’ beats, and you’ve got an album that delivers both lyrical and musically beyond anything else I heard this year. The pair have created such a beautiful object in Innocent Country II. Tracks like ‘Black Twitter’ and ‘Make it Better’ deliver something witty, sure, but also delicate, politically deft, touching, and honestly just musically lovely. A really remarkable achievement.

Tom Burrows: Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind – With no tours or festivals for artists to promote album releases, it feels like many artists have sidestepped 2020, ready to capitalise if things ever get ‘back to normal’. Fair enough. But End of Year List Season in this year of years is therefore a great opportunity to express gratitude to those artists that did give us something to soundtrack our collective blues with.

What I want at a time like this is not something that reminds me that I’m stuck indoors, but rather something to transport me away. I don’t know what Heaven To A Tortured Mind is about lyrically. The visuals, like all of Yves Tumor’s work, look like something extracted from a surrealist horror film, and the song titles seem intentionally vague (‘Strawberry Privilege’, ‘Asteroid Blues’). But on a pure sound level, it just hits every time I put it on.

For an experimental artist who has previously worked in the noise genre, they sure know their way around a catchy groove. From the start of ‘Gospel For A New Century’ this record hooks you in instantly and doesn’t let go; it’s 37 minutes of impressionistic glam rock excellence and a great record to take you out of this godforsaken year for a brief moment in time.

James Spearing: Laura Marling – Song for our Daughter – This album is up there with Laura’s best, it might even be her best. Song for our Daughter is Laura at her wisest, most focused and least distracted by concept or experimentation. Everything in her incredible run of albums so far has been leading to this point of near perfection.

Her craft is so honed that she can effortlessly give her fans what they want. And in a year where the world has seemed close to the edge, a brilliant album from Laura was exactly what us fans needed.

It has that uncommon characteristic of albums like Ziggy Stardust and Dummy where there are no dips in quality – every single song is at 100% and I have a new favourite every time. It’s ‘The End of the Affair’ as I listen while typing this.

It should have won the Mercury but didn’t. So help me make sure Laura wins the second most talked about prize in music, the PBAOTY.

Pete Wild: Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman –  There have been a few albums that have rung my proverbial bell this year – was really glad to see Flaming Lips deliver American Head, an album that rivalled their best after a patchy few years, really liked the new Margo Price record That’s How Rumours Get Started (she’s the new Lucinda Williams if you’re interested), thought Cornershop’s England is a Garden did some interesting things (and managed to be really fun at a time when … you know… fun was in rather short supply) but the album I’ve come back to again and again (the most) is Bonny Lighthorseman by… er… Bonny Lighthorseman.

You might say of course you were always going to like Bonny Lighthorseman, it’s got members of The National in it. Box ticked. To which I would merely point at Matt Berninger’s (for me) slightly disappointing Serpentine Prison and say (a) having a member of The National involved doesn’t guarantee success and (b) I didn’t really get along with El Vy either. Bonny Lighthorseman for those yet to be initiated to its delights is what you might call a sort of rootsy folk album in which standards are reinterpreted in a way that feels sort of Bon Iver-ish. It’s got all the charm of a Sunday morning Nick Drake album combined with what you might call the Fleetwood Mac-ness of a well crafted song. It’s just an album of pleasure is what it is and (like all great albums) I hear something new each time I listen. It’s the gift that keeps giving in other words.
Kirsten Loach: Keeley Forsyth – Debris – I have Spotify to thank for introducing me to the music of Keeley Forsyth. There I was, listening to whatever album I had on that day, when the music I knew finished and in came the otherworldly opening bars of ‘Start Again’ – the final song on this stunning album. It immediately spoke to me and I rushed to the album, finding something that sounded like a soundtrack to a Bronte novel mixed with the score of a dystopian science fiction film.

2020 has been a dark year, and Debris is definitely a dark album. It feels like a big black cloud at times – and while that might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, I enjoyed finding some music that reflected the state of the world in recent times. It is an album that deals with depression and it doesn’t shy away from that. But in songs like ‘Look to Yourself’ it also shows a glint of optimism, a suggestion that you can fight your way through the mire. It’s moments like this that make it stand out above everything else released in 2020.

Will Collins: Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud – My favourite album of the year didn’t birth a new genre, rip up the rulebook, or radically alter our conception of what an album can be. In many ways, it’s an old-fashioned thing – eleven songs from a singer-songwriter working broadly within the confines of country music. But on the songs that make up Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee makes a case for being one of the best songwriters of her generation. She stakes the potentially tired tropes and instrumentation of a genre not always known for its experimentation and forces them into captivating forms. The songs are assured, but delicate; the voice she adopts is often that of someone pushed to the edge by life, but capable of ruminating on those hardships with poetry and wry humour. The simplicity of the arrangements brings out the quality of her lyrics. Nuanced, thoughtful explorations of people and places sit atop strummed guitar and simple drum patterns. Pulling it all together is her voice; strained, weary, resilient and meditative in equal measure. This is the album I’ve kept coming back to throughout the year, and for very good reason.

Sam Atkins: The Weeknd – After Hours

I’m writing this 24 hours after feeling as outraged as half of my twitter feed were that one of the most acclaimed, commercially successful and in my eyes THE best album of 2020 was completely snubbed for a nomination at the Grammy Awards. Pointless accolades aside, for me no album in 2020 has reached the heights of After Hours, a dark and thrilling journey to the 80s and back for one of Pop’s all time greats.

After Hours is the culmination of years of fantastic, if unfocused musical output and it’s by far his greatest record to date. ‘Blinding Lights’ is the sort of hit single that we rarely get the privilege to hear every 5 seconds on the radio, it’s not just everywhere, it’s bloody great too. The fact Abel had an even better and bigger song ready to sequence straight after, the impossibly catchy and euphoric sax filled In Your Eyes is bold as hell too.

After Hours is so much more than the flashy 80s inspired moments though, this is a fully fledged album from start to finish, the haunting opener ‘Alone Again’ through the trancey bounce of ‘Too Late’ to the bleak drama of ‘Escape from LA’ this is an album stacked with Abel’s best lyrical depth and most infectious hooks of his career. Even the Tame Impala collaborative interlude ‘Repeat After Me’ is layered with depth before diving into the seedy title track. After Hours is the moment when one of the artists of this generation became one of the all time greats, an outstanding record that made 2020 for me.

Yasmin Duggal: Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia – A worthy winner of Album of the Year for ‘Levitating’ alone, Dua Lipa has been busy releasing fantastic, shiny, fizzing pop and saving us from the 2020 shit show.

Dropped at the start of lockdown 1.0, Future Nostalgia provided intergalactic escapism from banana breads, morning workouts, masks, arrows on floors, singing Happy Birthday and eating out to help nowt. Dua hosted the best disco in town and we were all invited when we needed it most – and she even brought Miley Cyrus! A true popular triumph this year, Dua has powerful, sultry pop down to a T with the added bonus of a glitter-ball backdrop – and I’m so here for it. (Tbh, I’m just here for her saying ‘sugar boo’ on repeat.)

Fliss Clarke: Sault – Untitled (Black is…) – Uber mysterious RnB soul collective Sault have released four albums in the last 18 months and their two 2020 albums ought to both be Album of the Year contenders. Their July release, Untitled (Black Is) just pips September’s Untitled (Rise) to my personal Album of the Year post and deserves the overall crown for being a profoundly moving, timely, forceful work of exciting musical magnitude.

It is an album of Black beauty and resistance powerfully expressed through extra fresh RnB, blues, funk, spoken word, gospel chants, afrobeat, and disco sounds. Themes of grief, rage, collective strength and celebration run through the stunning contemporary soul of an album which is essential listening for 2020 and all time. Untitled (Black Is) is potent, deep, beautiful, and urgent. Vote Sault.

Matt Paul: Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door Less Open – I’m not going to argue that this is categorically the best album of the year. See Fiona Apple for that. This is my favourite though. Car Seat Headrest decided to take a step forward stylistically. I loved the prior album, Teens of Denial, as a perfect example of what indie rock is. In Making a Door Less Open, the sound expands to include dancey electronic moments, but also heavier rock. It still sounds like Car Seat Headrest, but it’s a snappier and more diverse sound. And I can’t get enough.

Fat Roland: Nathan Fake – Blizzards 2020 has been the year of home listening, a constant soundtrack drowning out every miserable moment of lockdown guff. So many potential Albums of the Year. The cracking thing about Nathan Fake’s Blizzards is that it does all the best albums at once. The breakbeats of ‘Cry Me A Blizzard’ have the nostalgic giddiness of Octo Octa. ‘Pentiamonds’ is tainted with the visceral bruising of Against All Logic’s stunningly damaged ‘2017-2019’. ‘North Brink’ seems to blend the icy hi-hats of Shinichi Atobe’s ‘Yes’ with the melted warmth of Khotin’s ‘Finds You Well’ to make a temperature that’s, erm, just right. ‘Vectra’ has a six-pints-in swagger seen so often in Clark’s more unhinged work. The spiralling highlight ‘Eris & Dysnomia’ reverberates with– well, you get my point. ‘Blizzards’ works on its own terms too, powered by a frustrated energy, its rhythms rising from the foundations of the clubs we no longer go to. If it was holding a placard, the message would be a hastily scrawled “dance NOW, you buggers”. It’s thrilling to hear and deserves a lot more home listening in this hot fart we call 2020.

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